When Steve Biko was murdered in a South African police cell, it meant nothing to a young, white David Cohen. Now, as Biko's killers appeal for amnesty, he recalls how the lesson of apartheid's martyr finally forced him from guilty collusion into active resistance
On 12 September 1977, Steve Biko was murdered in a police cell less than 60 miles from my home. I was 15 years old at the time and I wish, like Donald Woods, I had raised my fist in the air and cried, "I remember Steve Biko." But my priorities in 1977 were different: would I get to French kiss Tracey Balser? Would I ever develop real muscles on my legs, arms, chest, anywhere? And what would it take to stop Peter Solomons from punching me whenever he was having a bad day? I must have read of Biko's death in the newspaper, but I have no recollection of it causing even the slightest ripple on my consciousness.

To understand how far apart I was from Steve Biko then, you have to remember how cocooned most whites in South Africa were, particularly in the Vorster era, the darkest age of apartheid. As I recall, Biko's death was never mentioned by my parents in our suburban Johannesburg home, nor by my numerous uncles, aunts, cousins or family friends, nor by teachers or fellow pupils at my all-white state secondary school. And I would say my experience was typical.

When the Minister of Police, Jimmy Kruger, stood up and callously said of Steve Biko, "His death leaves me cold," he was, alas, speaking for most of the whites I knew, English, Afrikaans and Jewish. Deep down, we were all riddled with fear, we all colluded. The only difference was one of degree.

Now, 20 years later, five former security policemen have stepped forward to confess to killing Biko and to apply for amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In those 20 years, many ordinary white South Africans, including myself, made a definitive moral journey from unwitting collusion with the state to active resistance of apartheid. We may not have known it then, but the terms of our engagement, the way white resistance politics came to be organised in the Eighties - augmenting black resistance politics but not leading it - was a direct result of the philosophy of Steve Biko.

But what did Steve Biko really mean to me, an impressionable young white boy, who never met him? Biko is remembered as the father of "black consciousness", he also in the process defined "white consciousness" and spelled out the role of the white liberal.

It was in the early Eighties, when I left home and went to the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg to study commerce that my relationship with Steve Biko and my engagement with resistance politics began. Campus had become intensely political and I remember the day when a group of black students, some wearing Biko T-shirts, burnt the South African flag. It was exciting and dangerous, the police arrived with their snarling dogs, students scattered and regrouped, culminating in a stand-off involving the entire student body. I found myself, without consciously meaning to, standing with the conservative commerce and engineering students, vociferously jeering the flag burners. The next morning an older friend whom I greatly respected came up to me and said with some venom: "How can you align yourself with such scum?" I protested that I had just been having fun.

But as I looked into his disappointed face, the penny started to drop. It was time to decide whose side I was on.

Steve Biko was the first anti-apartheid campaigner whose writings I read. From over the border in Lesotho, I managed to secure a copy of the banned book, Steve Biko - I Write What I Like, a collection of letters and articles he had written as president of SASO (the all-black South African Students' Organisation) and which had appeared under the pseudonym "Frank Talk". By then I was 20, teaching black students economics as part of an anti- apartheid programme and gradually, through contact with my students, being drawn into a painful awareness of what it was like to be black in South Africa. My students - full of the black-consciousness spirit of Steve Biko - were boycotting their state exams. Many had been imprisoned or tortured and most had family in detention. They showed me their scars, took me to Soweto. Who was I to be teaching them? I had begun, like many clumsy, well-intentioned liberals, to ask myself: what could I do to help blacks to liberate themselves?

It was Biko who reminded us that this was the wrong question. In a pointed message to white liberals, entitled "Black Souls in White Skins?", Biko had written: "The [white] liberals must understand that the blacks do not need a go-between in this struggle for their own emancipation. Rather, all true liberals should realise that the place for their fight for justice is within their white society. The liberal must apply himself with absolute dedication to the idea of educating his white brothers."

When Biko had penned this article in 1970, his separatist ideology had been criticised as racist, but by the early Eighties his was the guiding principle in the structure of the anti-apartheid movement. When, for example, whites like myself became active in the United Democratic Front (UDF), the "internal ANC" as it became known, we did so by joining JODAC (Johannesburg Democratic Action Committee), an organisation for radical whites affiliated to the UDF. In JODAC, I met like-minded whites, some of whom were full- time activists far more dedicated to "the struggle" than I would ever be and who had gone "underground" to stay out of jail, only to pop up at various JODAC cell meetings, some of which happened to be held in my bedroom. Our main task was to educate our fellow whites and to this end, we planned public meetings, organised rock concerts to publicise the plight of political detainees and ran illegal poster campaigns.

When, in 1986, I, along with various other Jewish members of JODAC, decided to challenge the shameless collusion of the Jewish community by forming Jews for Social Justice (JSJ), we were acting very much in the manner envisaged by Biko. JSJ was never more than a bit-player in the anti- apartheid jigsaw, but the fact is that as a conscience-provoking force on an influential segment of the white community, we were hugely successful: our meetings attracted large numbers and became a talking-point for the entire Jewish community, and, more importantly, we began to educate rabbis and convert them to the cause. Bigger battles were being fought elsewhere, but we had opened another front against the state in a way in which Biko would have approved. For me, connecting my Jewish roots with my South African roots gave me, for the first time, a thrilling and meaningful sense of "white consciousness".

September 1987 marked the end of my career as an activist. The second State of Emergency had been declared and I had exhausted all avenues, legal and otherwise, for staying out of the army. I either had to join the infantry or get out. A few in my position had opted to resist conscription and do their time in prison, but I never seriously considered the martyr position. I returned to the UK, the country of my birth, which my parents had left when I was two years old.

But the impact of Biko and becoming politicised didn't end there. Within two years, I found myself working as a merchant banker for NM Rothschild & Sons in the City. As a young man with an entrepreneurial bent, I had considered the mergers and acquisitions department of Rothschild's to be the pinnacle of the financial world. When I got there, I found that I was good at the job, that my colleagues liked me, that my salary was agreeable and that promotion was rapid. But there was no way my conscience would let me stay. When all the glamour and intrigue was stripped away, my job basically involved helping rich and powerful businessmen to get richer and more powerful than they already were. If I had learnt one thing in South Africa, it was this: where you put your daily energy is what counts and what defines you. In January 1991, way before the term "downshifting" was invented, I became Rothschild's first voluntary downwardly-mobile professional. I quit to become an unemployed, then self-employed, journalist.

Now Biko's killers - Col Harold Snyman, Lt Col G Nieuwaudt, Warrant Officers R Marx and J Beneke and Captain D Siebert, all former security policemen - have filed an application for amnesty to be heard later this year. Relatives of Biko have said that they will oppose the application. How are the rest of us to respond? First, it seems important to hear whose orders they followed, how the chain of command worked, why they felt it necessary to kill him (and indeed other high-profile activists whose abduction and murder they have admitted to as well) and why they had to do it in such a barbaric, brutal way?

Finally, what about the doctors, Ivor Lang and Benjamin Tucker, who served as district surgeons in Port Elizabeth at the time of Biko's detention, and whom a subsequent inquest found guilty of disgraceful conduct? In my mind, it was the cold-blooded collusion of the reasonable white professional, far more than the predictable brutality of the low-life police, that was a defining moment in the white psyche, for it showed the society was rotten to the core.

The key question is: has white society really changed? I would say yes and no. I think that we whites have still to come to terms with Biko. Peer into the clear, unflinching eyes of his photograph, digest his original text - and what moves, inspires, perhaps scares you, is his undiluted, uncompromising black power. Unlike the cultured, silken, rational stance of Nelson Mandela, the raw black power exuded by Biko is something with which white society is still less than securen